Category Archives: Development Ethics

Gritty Realism vs. a New Woman

Washington conference 3

Washington, D.C. abounds with (free) opportunities to participate in erudite deliberations, cutting-edge topical presentations by highly respected experts, and diverse policy discussions including people who actually wield enormous power (or once did). Then there are those by-invitation-only gatherings of the “high-level” people – gatherings beyond the range of mere mortals such as I, with the occasional quirky exception (such as when I was invited to join Ambassador Samantha Power for a dinner). Elite-invitation-envy aside, Washington events are populated with many folks who are unquestionably very smart, remarkably accomplished, influential (just ask them), and affiliated with just the right institutions or government departments (again, just ask them – they expect to be asked).

With the notable exception of the few “fringe” or “radical” gatherings (e.g. feminists, LGBTI people, religious devotees, environmentalists, or philosophers), those who attend the more typical Washington discourse events are also usually quite well-invested in the prevailing paradigm, which is always a variation on the preeminence of Power and Wealth (occasionally made glamorous by close association with Technology). It’s a paradigm + variations that comes with baggage: an almost off-hand acceptance of the many inherent failings of human nature, the wave-of-the-hand disavowal of “old notions” of morality, or a dismissive snicker at the naïveté of anyone idealistic enough to suggest someone might actually be motivated by public service.

No one really talks about public service. Just like no one really talks about integrity, when it is so much more fashionable to frame everything through the lens of corruption. People will be corrupt to the extent that they can get away with it, right? What else is there to say, except to exhort a stop to these corrupt miscreants (who of course by definition are those of us who get caught)?

It goes deeper still, however. There exists an unspoken premise that citizens will always bend to incentive structures that have been cleverly crafted to appear to maximize their individual self-interest, but which are more likely to be all about manipulating people towards ulterior ends, i.e. entrenching and amassing the power and wealth of the elites. And about those ulterior ends… the adjective “nefarious” is usually left off. Why assume motives, eh? The economy will do what it does.

We who frequent such events do take some small measure of comfort knowing that the many conferences and workshops and gatherings in Washington almost always are provisioned with ample – if not particularly good – free coffee. If you’re lucky, or very selective, there’s even free food. No, the food’s not particularly good either, but the price is sweet.

Do I sound just a little despairing of my Washington colleagues? After all, cynicism about humanity and its venal motivations is well supported by so much of history (or at least by what we’ve chosen to report on in our history books, or on Fox news, or on Twitter). It’s become the norm to be suspicious (or knowingly condescending) about the possibility that morality might mean something, or that human dignity has any practical influence. The evidence to the contrary is just so plentiful – as all around the world senseless conflicts rage on, and millions of people are displaced or condemned to a grueling life as refugees. The tally of human suffering is beyond calculation.

So we don’t try.

That’s just “the way it is”, right? Deal with it. Realism means that we’ve long since put aside the ritual wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth. If you’re going to play in this Washington game at this level, you damn well better know the rules. And in the context of international development, conflict management & peacebuilding, and human rights advocacy, the prevailing rules are rooted in the dynamics of power and wealth. Everything else is “soft”. Sure, it’s “nice” to pay rhetorical homage from time to time (and in passing) to ideals like justice, compassion, patriotism, public service, dignity, second-generation human rights, or – dare I even mention it – love, but in the end the players in this game adhere to the well-worn dictates of the patriarchy: only Power and Money (and the self-interest that can be pursued through these) matter.

Period. Continue reading Gritty Realism vs. a New Woman

Reflections from an Unrepentant International Development Idealist

development 1

For years and years every Friday morning at 8am, a small group of international development folks of many nationalities would gather for an hour over coffee and fruit in a well-appointed if sunless conference room in the first basement level of the World Bank in Washington, D.C. Whenever I was in Washington (i.e. when I wasn’t working overseas), I would take the opportunity to join them, which meant I was usually one of the regulars. Predominantly attended by World Bank staff, they were happy to include consultants and visitors like me in a common endeavor. In short, we talked values.

Sometimes “values” strayed into religion, or spirituality, or secular humanism. Often there was a guest presenter, and even I made a few presentations along the way.  I do remember some remarkably inspirational discussions…and 9am always came around too fast. We’d then return to our respective worlds of pragmatism, attending to the development “paradigm of the month” and the realities of the various institutional environments that shape how international “development” is supposed to happen.

Yet often I left the World Bank’s basement with the strong sentiment: “if only…”.

Over the years, and even long after the Friday Morning Group ceased (gray-haired regulars retired and younger people could not accommodate Friday meetings that early!), my “if only” list has only grown. Call me an optimist, an idealist, or even out-of-touch, although I would argue that the latter accusation is suspect given my more than 15 years based in developing countries, and more than twice that long doing development work. If you insist on disparaging me, then call me a wishful-thinker who views her world through those rose colored glasses that seem now to have fallen out of vogue. But don’t call me naïve, or a dreamer, or foolhardy…even if I do admit to one fundamental abnormality not shared by the majority of those who have given their careers to international development, poverty alleviation, humanitarian relief, or human rights activism: I am an unrepentant idealist.

Yes, I still believe in the basic goodness of people, and their potential to do the right thing…and for the right reason.

It’s a conviction that I’ve paid dearly for in terms of bucking the system and being an outsider. When I worked at a leading consulting firm and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) put out a comprehensive anti-corruption proposal some years ago, the terms of reference stipulated that all of the experts for the project ought to be economists. I pushed back, arguing that people are moved by many factors, and that we therefore instead ought to offer a balanced team of economists, political scientists, and development ethicists to capture more of the very human dynamics that truly define corruption (and integrity). The proposal was submitted accordingly and was promptly rejected by USAID; the competitor’s winning proposal took USAID at its word and provided only economists. Later at a different consulting firm, the donor’s terms of reference for a project on community-driven development completely ignored gender considerations, and in the draft proposal that I prepared I argued that we should showcase an approach that also featured the purposeful collaboration of men and women. I was told that this wasn’t the way the world (i.e. the patriarchy) worked, my draft of the proposal was rewritten to take out all of the references that I’d included that were based on gender equity, and the firm went on to win the project. My draft would clearly have failed. Continue reading Reflections from an Unrepentant International Development Idealist

Pride Month – a time for international leadership


Xulhaz Mannan

June is Pride Month, and it is now associated with marches and festivals that celebrate the progress made to date around the world in achieving a growing aspiration – to respect the universal dignity of all human beings – regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. I will be proud to march with members of my Quaker community in Washington’s own Pride Parade this Saturday. Yet amid the celebrations, there are also moments when we must take stock of the grievous sacrifices that have characterized this dignity journey so far.

Today was a stocktaking day for me, as I attended the special memorial service for Xulhaz Mannan that was held at the U.S. Agency for International Development’s headquarters in Washington. Xulhaz was a Foreign Service National – a local employee of USAID – who worked at the USAID Mission in his home country of Bangladesh. On April 25th of this year, Xulhaz and his friend Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy were both hacked to death in his apartment by six members of an extremist group.

Xulhaz knew the risks of being openly gay in Bangladesh, but he was a man with a strong moral sense of mission. Besides his important work on democracy, human rights, and good governance programming for USAID in Bangladesh, Xulhaz also served as the editor of Roopbaan, that country’s first and only LGBTI magazine. Xulhaz was a committed LGBTI development activist, and he paid the price for his commitment in a country where diversity is culturally abhorred by many. I did not know Xulhaz personally, but having worked in Bangladesh, the reality of his tragic loss was particularly gripping.

Bangladeshi popular abhorrence notwithstanding, diversity happens.

Xulhaz’s bravery in owning his homosexuality was only part of a picture of a man who was a recognized champion on behalf of Bangladesh’s gay and transgender people. The speeches made at the USAID memorial service were eloquent, sincere, and moving in their praise of his generosity of spirit, his principled commitment to human rights, his remarkable sense of humor amid deeply challenging times in his country, and his many cherished friendships. For me, there were two particularly poignant moments in this memorial service. One was  when Xulhaz’s brother, Minhaz Mannan Emon, made a profoundly personal tribute to his lost brother. The second was when the USAID Administrator, Gayle Smith, fought back her tears to paint a vibrant picture of a man who was beloved and respected – and very, very human.

Bangladesh and many other countries afflicted by perverse intolerance for the inescapable (and wonderful) reality of human diversity constitute some of the most challenging battle lines in the struggle for human dignity. That awareness filled my heart as I went directly from the memorial service to a (previously arranged) USAID Pride Month event upstairs in the same building, where I joined former Congressman Barney Frank; the International Program Director of the Williams Institute at UCLA, Andrew Park; and USAID’s Senior Human Rights, LGBTI, and Social Inclusion Advisor Ajit Joshi as the fourth speaker to USAID staff gathered in the Nelson Mandela Room. Our topic: how international development efforts might best address the plight of LGBTI persons around the world – and what USAID’s optimal role should be in this context. Continue reading Pride Month – a time for international leadership

How’s this for a job pitch?

transgender symbol fist

What does “human dignity” mean to you? Does it elicit warm and fuzzy feelings? Is it an inspirational term – a call to a higher moral standard perhaps? Or is it instead some ill-defined intellectual notion, associated vaguely with what it means to be a human being, but not something we can operationalize?

Vague? Not for me. Human dignity is the existential core of who I am, and why I – and every human being – deserve to be respected. And no, I’m not claiming some special status. Human dignity is shared in equal measure by every person, but some of us need to remind others of that fact. For anyone who is transgender, reminding the world around us that we’re as deserving of respect for our core humanity and our authentic identity as they are is a daily undertaking. I’m not sure we’re winning…if transgender people are not busy each day having to advocate for our dignity, we are fighting to have our authenticity recognized. That advocacy takes place both morally and legally, but given the near vacuum around secular moral deliberation the public conversation is much more heavily weighed on the legal. Sadly however, law is a field of battle that is only marginally productive in this context, at least in the absence of an equivalently robust moral engagement.

While there have been some legal victories for the human dignity of transgender people in some countries and some American states, that’s the exception and not the rule. We are generally simply classified as “gay” (which many of us emphatically are not, in terms of our sexual orientation) and left to join our beleaguered L,G,and B allies to face the opprobrium of homophobia that is so virulent around the world. As transgender folk we are mostly invisible, unless we’re among those who are struggling to survive in one of the few avenues open to transgender women – as sex workers – where we face extremes of violence almost beyond comprehension. We seldom get the chance to take our public stand on our own terms or on our priority issues, advocating – legally or morally – as dignified and authentic human beings.

That invisibility is slowly being swept away. Too slowly, yes, and often very awkwardly, but through the rising assertiveness of transgender people we are becoming more present. The world is being called to awareness of our existence through our solidarity in advocating a vigorous, in-your-face claim to human dignity. That’s a claim that is spiritually edgy,  morally profound, and legally troubling, and societies around the world are awkward and resistant, or downright abusive, regarding our assertions of human dignity. But human dignity is what we’ve hung our lives and our futures on – and it’s vital to us that we have that conversation with our respective societies.

After all, we’re not going away.

Human dignity however may not be an ideal tactic. One doesn’t need to scratch the surface very deeply to detect a significant vein of cynicism about human dignity. Law professor David Hyman of the University of Illinois, writing in the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy back in 2003, was dismissive:

Human dignity is an abstract aspiration, but policy decisions are necessarily concrete. These decisions must therefore be created and implemented by those “in the trenches,” but there is little evidence to suggest that anyone in the trenches really wants to use human dignity as the touchstone for decision-making or has any particular expertise in this area.

Continue reading How’s this for a job pitch?

The folly – and necessity – of human dignity

dignity free and equal

Our world is beset by callousness and brutality.

The death toll grows each day from the cruel violence of Boko Haram, Daesh/ISIS, Al Qaeda and its offshoots, Quds Force, Haqqani Network, and other terrorist groups, all of whom frequently target even defenseless women and children. President Assad and his Russian allies indiscriminately attack areas thickly populated by Syrian civilians, and the fighting roils on in Iraq, Yemen, the Lake Chad Basin, South Sudan, Burundi, and Afghanistan. We’ve become numb to the incessant news reports of yet more civilians suffering grievous harm, adversity, or death, and there’s no reasoning with those who place scant value on destroying human lives except as instrumental statements on their unyielding ideological trajectories.

In this context, what are we to make of the opening line of the first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”? After all, there are no qualifying clauses to cover the significance of human dignity in the eventuality of death by violent extremism. For far too many “free and equal” members of humanity, threats of violence, brutality, exclusion, subjugation, and death itself appear to have rendered our global moment of idealism when that Declaration was signed back in December of 1948 as, at best, a curious historical anomaly.

Is the notion of universal human dignity not sheer folly in 2016?

It’s worth noting from the outset that “human dignity” has several meanings. My first assignment for the students of my new graduate-level course on Human Dignity was to read a short opinion piece – “In Search of Dignity” – that conservative cultural commentator David Brooks had written in the New York Times back in July of 2009. Brooks described a “dignity code” as a set of rules and civic virtues, and it was his contention that this dignity code was exemplified by George Washington. According to Brooks, Washington subordinated his personal interests to national interests and duty. Brooks’ message however was not sanguine, as he concluded that “…the dignity code itself has been completely obliterated. The rules that guided Washington and generations of people after him are simply gone”. And while Brooks did allow that “Americans still admire dignity”, he asserts that there is no longer any popular consensus on, or practice of, the ethical standards that constitute such dignified convictions and behavior in the United States.

The concept of human dignity however is much more ambitious than seeking widespread consensus on rules of conduct, or on matters of deportment. Yes, for someone to sacrifice perceived self-interests for the greater good is refreshing, and we all know of examples of that taking place (starting with parenting). And human dignity is certainly more than just a reflection of social status or bearing, although that more limited definition of dignity still has its place in certain contexts. So while I applaud David Brooks for his pondering on one dimension of human dignity, I am arguing that in the context of the exceptionally violent world of 2016 we ought to refocus our sights on that most ambitious interpretation of the human dignity concept: that “being human” means that we are each unique and valuable, and that we are each as valuable as any other person on the planet.

That’s a very large statement, and it certainly isn’t borne out by the way in which humanity conducts itself on this planet. Or, as stated most poignantly by Princeton University’s emeritus professor of politics, George Kateb: “The pathetic fact is that the only enemies of human dignity are human beings.” What is it that drives so many who are in positions of economic, military, political, social, or governance power to erode the shared basis that all of us – each and every human being on this planet – depend upon as the moral and ethical foundation for all human rights, all laws, and any sense of justice: human dignity? Continue reading The folly – and necessity – of human dignity

Peace on Earth, Good Will toward Men (and Women)

Christmas scene

Almost from the outset, I realized my error. Once again my idealism had gotten the best of me, even if to me it had all seemed so clear and pressing. The eight or nine officials from the U.S. Agency for International Development who were seated around that conference table at USAID headquarters more than three years ago just before the Christmas break were all committed to the introduction of the political economy analysis (PEA) tool into USAID’s core set of analytical approaches. Yet my pitch (or was it a plea?) went flat. In that obscure meeting long ago, I was making the case that limiting our evaluation of what constitutes good, effective, and sustainable international development requires more than just the analysis and consideration of power and money, and more than just viewing democracy and governance as a competitive “political game”. People are complicated creatures, and sometimes we are motivated by other reasons…moral reasons. Sometimes people choose to collaborate instead of compete, or chose to care about others rather than use them.

Their facial expressions said it all. Some showed a glint of pity for my naïveté, others were more openly disdainful. How did I ever get to be a political appointee and senior advisor without appreciating what they each knew to be irrefutable and fundamental doctrine, that Homo economicus rules? My curious assertion was that many (I believe I said “most”) people in developing countries are also deeply moved in their aspirations, choices, character, and actions by a moral compass. I argued that while PEA was undoubtedly a useful tool for USAID, it could not be applied without at least some room at the edges for the influence of morality and ethics – but it was evident that my modest challenge to orthodoxy would be resisted.

Homo economicus is well described by Peter Ubel as a “creature of coldly calculated selfishness, dispassionately maximizing its best interests even if that comes at the expense of others”. And the irony isn’t lost on me that I’m writing about Homo economicus very, very early on a dark and quiet Christmas morning. My thoughts at this moment are also simultaneously drawn to that compelling historically unexpected alternative paradigm that was introduced to the world more than two millennia ago in the humility of a birth in a stable in Bethlehem.

I used to find Christmas in America nearly unbearable. The word “crass” doesn’t begin to capture the avaricious, manipulative, cynical view of humanity that has converted a celebration of one of human history’s most poignant examples of love, sacrifice, caring, and wisdom into an orgy at which Homo economicus presides and exalts. Fortunately I have moved on and now have found my own ways to ignore the crassness. I have learned how to center down on Christmas. And while I am a Christian, I would think that the story of Jesus that had its start in that manger is one that transcends any religion, with his life and message of love, humility, peace, and caring offering a profound challenge to the earthly rule of Homo economicus.

Homo economicus has no use for love or peace, except as sentiments to be exploited for commercial gain. The articles of faith of the doctrine of Power and Money haven’t built their vast financial empires or victorious armies on the virtues of caring, gentleness, or humility. There’s no trace of love in the arrogant smirks or in the manipulative, condescending words of the most successful (i.e. wealthy and powerful) exemplars of power and money. Homo economicus is all too real, and USAID is right – we ought to take him (and occasionally her) seriously. He is regularly embodied now and throughout history in a never ceasing cavalcade of “successful” people who are distinguished by (or loathed for) their limitless greed, self-centeredness, cruelty, bluster, arrogance, and disdain for lesser mortals. Donald Trump is but the latest variation along this theme, yet like Mobutu Sese Seko, Robert Mugabe, Pol Pot, Adolph Hitler, or innumerable other tycoons or despots, somehow this type of person always attracts a devoted following.

Why do we make disproportionate room in our lives for power and money, but seem to relegate love to the edges? Why do we build our media and news around stories of extreme violence, sensational greed, and the callous lives of the unthinking, uncaring wealthy elites and self-absorbed celebrities, with very little room for genuine “good news” stories? Why do we get so exercised about those who prosper through avarice and corruption, while entirely forgetting to recognize those who quietly but steadfastly pursue lives of remarkable integrity? Why do we honor experience (with no moral denominator) and ignore wisdom? Why do we say so little about (and fund so minimally) such extraordinarily successful examples of peacebuilding such as the Peace Corps, yet complain endlessly about government dysfunction? Why do we think of human rights only as a list of grievous violations, instead of as an agenda that – if actively promoted – leads inexorably to the universal recognition of human dignity? Why do we fail to recognize the hard and selfless work of human rights activists and civil society folk around the world, who make extraordinary sacrifices in their quest for making our world just a little better? Continue reading Peace on Earth, Good Will toward Men (and Women)

A Pope’s dismay … at Christmas

Pope Francis 2

For a non-Catholic, I’ll admit to a certain grudging admiration for Pope Francis.

Why grudging? Well, he’s the leader of a religious denomination of 1.2 billion persons, still exclusively led just by men. Any organization – even a small one – that limits its leadership to persons of one gender is poorly situated to understand the dynamic tapestry of humanity, or to draw upon the spiritual and worldly gifts that men and women, boys and girls, each uniquely offer. The Roman Catholic Church however isn’t a small organization, so sexism institutionalized on such a gargantuan scale leaves me profoundly uneasy (and to be clear, I’d be every bit as uneasy were this church led only by women).

Pope Francis seems unlikely to morph into the Angel of Gender Equity any time soon. This Pope has also said some very unflattering things about people who are transgender, such as comparing us with nuclear weapons! Perhaps I should be flattered with such a comparison – it is seldom that a transgender person is ever described as supremely powerful (even if in a destructive sense). Pope Francis however has taken the view that the world’s nuclear arsenals are to be equated with some of the world’s most disempowered and persecuted people – both standing accused of failing “to recognize the order of creation”. So while I lack the weight of a billion-plus congregation, I refute the Pope’s accusation, remaining convinced that the divine light shines equally in each and every one of us. That’s the “order of creation” that I feel most led to respond to, and to reach for.

So I have reasons to feel under-appreciated by this Pontiff…and “grudging” I will remain. Still, the Pope’s recent observation about the Christmas season that we’re entering upon left me deeply moved, if also deeply saddened. His words:

“we are close to Christmas. There will be lights, there will be parties, bright trees, even Nativity scenes – all decked out – while the world continues to wage war…It’s all a charade. The world has not understood the way of peace. The whole world is at war.”

I just set up my Nativity scene at home, and here in Maryland there are already Christmas lights. Yes – I have received invitations to parties, and I will be happy to attend. This morning I’ve spent time online trying to locate (affordable) tickets to take my children to the ballet (The Nutcracker, of course). “Black Friday” (a name that should be a warning) was yesterday, and the media has once again ramped itself up to its usual annual frenzy of commercialization, ever-increasing crassness, and rank consumerism.

What does any of the American Christmas Industry have to do with the celebration of the remarkable birth of Jesus of Nazareth in a humble stable? We no longer even ask. Continue reading A Pope’s dismay … at Christmas

Kenya – trouble in paradise


Spectacular! Stunning!

My quest for superlative adjectives wasn’t up to this, and so I just gazed, wide-eyed but in silence. I shared the small plane with only the pilot – my friend and rock-climbing buddy Frank Barnes – as we flew west from Nairobi towards the Ngong Hills. We stayed relatively close to the fascinating patchwork of farms below, until I gasped; suddenly the earth dropped precipitously away as we crossed over the Escarpment. We soared out in the cloudless sky to the northwest across the Great Rift Valley, and circled lazily over the hikers on the crater trail at the summit of Mt. Longonot volcano (pictured above). Then we circled first north and then eastwards, out across Lake Naivasha and then up to the Aberdares National Park, with snow-capped Mt. Kenya on the horizon. The beauty and grandeur of this country simply overwhelmed me.

Poignantly, that aerial safari was my farewell gift from my friend, the pilot, as I put ten years of living in Kenya behind me and headed back to the United States. Frank would meet an untimely death a few years later while piloting his solo balloon in the UK, but this remarkable hour with him in that small plane will live in my heart for my whole life. So would the realization that God has truly blessed the people of Kenya with one of the most beautiful countries on this planet. Of course my admiration for Kenya extends beyond the breathtaking landscape. Kenyans are a hard-working, hospitable, patriotic and civic-minded people, seeking what we all seek – a chance at a meaningful, happy life within a vibrant community.

So why is this gorgeous country experiencing such bad governance?

OK, my view of Kenya is no longer from the window of a small plane, but I am keeping close watch as I read many reports of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s crackdown on civil society. While such organizations lack the traditional levers of power and wealth, governments around the world have come to respect (and sometimes fear) the influence of civil society organizations (CSOs) to expose government malfeasance, corruption, waste, and inefficiency, and to demand critically needed social services, genuine justice and rule of law, and higher standards of government professionalism. So when Kenya’s CSOs speaks out on challenging topics such as human rights, inadequate social services, corruption, and the government’s ineffectual reaction to various real and imagined threats of terrorism, such criticism rankles those at the top of the political hierarchy who until now have been largely “above criticism”.

These aren’t insignificant crackdowns; recently Kenya threatened 959 CSOs with deregistration. Officially this is attributed to alleged financial irregularities in the way these CSOs are being managed and funded, and I accept that there may be some degree of truth in this assertion. CSOs around the world struggle with very limited and insecure financial resources and with overall “capacity” challenges – i.e. with attracting and retaining well-qualified managerial, accounting, and administrative staff. Being in full compliance with complex government financial reporting requirements may be a particular burden for a few of them.

But 959 of them? Continue reading Kenya – trouble in paradise

It has to stop. Now.



As someone who has been in love with Uganda since my first visit there 33 years ago, it is troubling that many people around the world now associate that country primarily for its extreme intolerance of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons. I have lived and worked in Uganda, and am a frequent visitor there. I am blessed with many Ugandan friends, and I know that there’s much to love and respect about this country. Yet as much of the rest of the world begins to mature into a greater recognition that human beings are by nature complicated and diverse – and that “normal” now needs to be redefined to embrace universal human dignity regardless of varying sexual orientations and non-conforming gender identities – Uganda sadly stands out as one prominent exception.

Uganda has indeed earned its status as a global pariah of homophobic intolerance, with almost all of its leaders and the vast majority of its population clinging tightly to these bigoted convictions. Yet Uganda is also a proxy for many other countries who share a similar lack of recognition of the dignity that each and every person ought to be distinguished by and respected for, regardless of their diversity. There are far too many “Ugandas” throughout sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and North Africa, Central Asia, and the former Soviet Union, but (for reasons that ought to concern all of us much more) they do not attract equivalent or warranted media attention or the opprobrium that is their due.

It was therefore with deep heartache and particular dismay that I just received yet more troubling news from Uganda.

On October 21st my dear Ugandan friend, Beyoncé Karungi, was attacked and severely beaten by five men. Only the intervention of a courageous friend saved her from even worse injuries or death. Beyoncé was targeted because she is transgender, and this isn’t the first time she has suffered violence at the hands of her countrymen. But Beyoncé is also a leader among human rights activists, the founder of Transgender Equality Uganda (TEU), and a very generous woman who has taken many young and highly vulnerable Ugandan transgender women into her care. Being evicted from their homes at an early age is not uncommon for Ugandan transgender persons, but through the kindness and concern of Beyoncé some have found at least temporary refuge in her modest home or in other “safe homes”. Following this recent attack and Beyoncé’s temporary incapacitation, these young transwomen are left particularly vulnerable at a time when vicious attacks on Ugandan transgender women and transgender men are sharply on the rise. Within the past month, we now know that at least two transmen and three transwomen (including Beyoncé) have been assaulted.

Ugandan LGBTI civil society has been the principle bulwark protecting LGBTI Ugandans against hatred and violence arising from a vicious and manipulative political culture and from homophobic incitement having its roots in certain perverse forms of Christian evangelism. Transgender Ugandans have largely been understood simply to be “gay” (even though many are heterosexual), but the transgender phenomenon isn’t well understood in Uganda. It’s still too early to say whether the recent upsurge in transphobic violence is specifically taking aim at gender nonconforming people in their own context as transgender persons, or whether this is but another bout of undifferentiated gay-bashing. In either case, Uganda’s police care little about this type of persecution and do even less to intervene to protect Uganda’s LGBTI citizens. Indicative of this, Beyoncé took almost no time to conclude that making a complaint to the police about her attack would be both useless and counter-productive. Continue reading It has to stop. Now.

Washington Development Orthodoxy vs. an honest man, deceased

Somalia flag

In international development circles, political economy analysis (PEA) is all the rage. Without doubt, PEA offers important analytical insights into international development. Political economy however has become the economics of politics, and has much less to do with political analysis. As the economic approach has grown in influence, the prevailing language has become one of “interests” and “incentives” coupled with the tantalizing promise of ever-greater analytical rigor. There’s no room on the PEA agenda however for the inconvenient notion of people who are motivated by altruism, ethical values, or integrity.

This means there’s no room for Abdirizak Hirsi Dheere, who was a dedicated and selfless public servant. Shall we just call him an outlier, and move on?

Personally, I never had the opportunity to meet Abdirizak, even though I was in the southern Somali city of Kismayo while he was still alive. Perhaps I passed him on the street. On the 16th of January in 1999, ten years after my two week stay in his city, he was killed along with his 11 year old nephew and 9 other civilians. They had all been abducted and held as prisoners by militia members, for reasons never made clear. Abdirizak and all the captives had then been taken into a small hut, which the militia members proceeded to drive a truck over repeatedly, crushing those within. What then remained of the hut was subjected to intense gunfire. Surprisingly three persons survived the brutality and cowardice of these attacks, but Abdirizak wasn’t among them.

Amidst all the unrelenting tragedy and barbarism that has swept over and become synonymous with Somalia, Abdirizak and those who shared his fate that day are almost lost to history. Almost, but not quite. I have their names, and I share them now with you: Abdirizak Hersi Dheere (58); his nephew Abdirizak Jiis Jumbur (11), Abdirahman Mohamed Isse (43), Nabadoon Yusuf Hassan Baadari (80), Abdinuur Musse (33), Ahmed Xiirey Kulan (20), Sanweyne Salah Gamuure (30), Mohamud Moallin (45), and Jaama Mahdi (40). Each was an individual with hopes, dreams, loved ones, a history, and until that day a small place in the sun. I wish I knew more about every one of them, but I only know about Abdirizak Hirsi Dheere. By complete chance I met his niece in Nairobi, Kenya, and she shared some stories about this modest man’s remarkable life. Continue reading Washington Development Orthodoxy vs. an honest man, deceased